Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in a U.S. drone strike, at the Enqelab-e-Eslami (Islamic Revolution) square in Tehran, Iran

Under increasing strategic alignment with the US, India’s West Asia policy, in recent years has given special attention to American allies, Saudi Arabia, Israel and UAE

Iran has been a permanent Achilles heel in India’s strategic ties with the US and things may further worsen after killing of Iran’s most powerful general Qasem Soleimani by a stunning US airstrike in Baghdad. New Delhi is caught between a rock and a hard place – the US is an indispensable partner in the Indo-Pacific to balance an assertive China while Iran is critical to India’s two main connectivity plans to Eurasia – the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and Chabahar port route to Central Asia. Heightened tensions between the US under its maverick President Donald Trump and Iran could potentially force New Delhi to make a choice between Indo-Pacific and Eurasia. India’s carefully worded statement on the matter seems to have an American tilt and given the current indicators, India is unlikely to abandon Indo-Pacific which would slow down the pace of its Eurasian strategy.

India has already stopped buying oil from Iran after the US refused to renew its earlier exemption given to India from America’s unilateral sanctions that were imposed on Iran after Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. Before these sanctions, Iran was one of the top crude oil suppliers to India but now, the US has been one of the major oil suppliers to India. The US also supplies gas to energy-hungry India and Indian companies have invested around $ 4 billion in US shale gas assets. Energy partnership is emerging as an important pillar in India’s relationship with the US as supplies from the US lessen India’s dependence on the volatile West Asian market and also the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Experts believe that there is enough oil in the market and given the huge power imbalance between the US and Iran, Tehran is unlikely to escalate tensions with the US. This means oil prices are unlikely to rise drastically and India does not need to worry much on this issue. In case there is a war between the US and Iran, India’s primary concern would be the safety of its diaspora whose strength is estimated to be around 8 to 9 million. It would also impose an economic cost on India as this diaspora sends roughly $ 35 billion back to India as remittances.

Under increasing strategic alignment with the US, India’s West Asia policy, in recent years has given special attention to American allies, Saudi Arabia, Israel and UAE. Shia majority Iran has been fighting for regional supremacy with Sunni dominated Saudis while Israel sees a potentially nuclear-armed Iran as a security threat. India, on its part, has not totally cut off ties under immense US pressure and lobbied hard with business-minded POTUS Donald Trump to keep Chabahar port out of US sanctions. The US recognises India’s role in stabilising Afghanistan and wants to lessen Kabul’s economic dependence on Pakistan’s Karachi port for trade. The Americans have not said anything about India’s INSTC, a north-south connectivity initiative that would link India with markets in Russia and Europe through Iran. Due to sanctions on steel and iron sector and companies and individuals associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), India would find it difficult to move ahead with both, Chabahar and INSTC. Both these initiatives would eventually balance America’s long-term adversary, China but for reasons known to heavens, Trump has failed to appreciate the strategic convergence between the US and India in Eurasia.

India’s increasing proximity with Saudi Arabia and UAE has played a critical role in isolating Pakistan in the Muslim world. The two countries did not criticise India’s Balakot airstrikes after Pakistan engineered the heinous Pulwama terror attack last year. They have also not shown any enthusiasm to comment on India’s abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. Iran, on the other hand, condemned India’s decision on Article 370, in a way helping Pakistan’s efforts to internationalise the Kashmir issue. Saudis and UAE also ensured that the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) takes a neutral stand on Kashmir issue compared to its earlier pro-Pakistan stand.

However, there are recent signs of a rupture in the Muslim world as five countries – Malaysia, Indonesia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran met in Kuala Lumpur to balance against Saudi dominance in OIC. In Iran’s presence, Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad made some controversial remarks on India’s Citizenship Amendment Act. Pakistan wanted to participate in the summit but the Saudis were able to stop it at the last minute. Pakistan extracted its pound of flesh and convinced Saudi Arabia to hold an OIC meeting on Kashmir.

There is a concern as the two camps in Muslim world compete for supremacy, it could become tricky for India to isolate Pakistan amongst these countries. Iran is already trying to balancing India’s closeness with the US by making statements against India’s recent Kashmir policy and also through its membership in the new bloc in the Muslim world. India would also closely watch Iran’s growing proximity with Taliban which would impact New Delhi’s Afghanistan policy. Prospects of improvement in Iran-Pakistan ties have already been scuttled as Pakistan has tacitly supported American actions against Iran and in exchange, the US has resumed military cooperation with Pakistan. Trump had stopped it two years ago citing Pakistan’s inaction against terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Pakistan seems to be a beneficiary of US-Iran tensions and India would be carefully watching these developments. Drawing a lesson from the killing of general Qasem, India would expect support from the US for India’s retaliatory strikes against Pakistan in future, in case Islamabad orchestrates an act of terrorism against India.

A lot has changed in the world after Trump became the US President in 2016. Call it anarchy or chaos; there is an increasing trend towards unilateralism as states move ahead to safeguard their national interests. For India, it would be a difficult task to move ahead with both Indo-Pacific and Eurasian strategy. New Delhi would hope that Iran does not escalate tensions with the US directly. The US is caught in too many battles – Afghanistan, Syria and hot spots like Iran and North Korea. The Chinese dragon lurks in the shadows, waiting for the Americans to fail. India should work with Japan and convince President Trump to focus on Eurasia, a region where China’s influence is almost going uncontested. India’s INSTC and Chabahar initiatives have the potential to balance China’s BRI in Eurasia. However, convincing Trump, as they say, is easier said than done.